Ever since Mousehunt, Gore Verbinski has made his name with films that work best as colossal Rube Goldberg devices, epically scaled works that show off a detailed imagination for elaborate action sequences filled with moving parts. At first blush, A Cure for Wellness has more in common with his smaller films than the likes of his recent blockbuster projects. In it, the director favors mannered compositions and camera movements that deliberately drain the film to a deadened, hollow mood. But this is as much a demonstration of Verbinski’s ambition and acumen as the bricolage of his Pirates of the Caribbean features, and Verbinski soon turns the central set into his playhouse.

The film introduces protagonist Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) on a train as he juggles his cell phone and laptop while brokering stocks. Already pale, the actor is lit in sickly blue tones that give his flesh the look of rigor mortis. Back at the corporate office, the executives look even more deathlike, scattered around a boardroom as they confront Lockhart for his illegal trading, a crime they despise far less than how poorly he hid it. Anticipating a federal investigation, the board gives Lockhart a chance to save his skin by dispatching him to a Swiss sanitarium to retrieve the company’s CEO, who has renounced capitalism while in treatment and writes messages of optimism so unlikely to come from the pen of a captain of industry that he could take the fall for being mentally unfit.

Once Lockhart arrives at the facility, however, he finds himself rapidly admitted for treatment under dubious circumstances. Then again, with his sallow complexion, heavy eyes and joyless behavior, the young man immediately fits the profile of someone in need of the cure being offered to the overworked rich.

Verbinski does not waste time highlighting the imposing, eerie nature of the sanitarium: housed in an old castle, the building’s vaunted lack of technology creates a sense of unease in its complete detachment from the outside world, while high ceilings and vast, labyrinthine corridors compound the displacement. In one early, expert scene, Lockhart roams into a sauna where steam rooms seem to open and close around him, so disorienting the man that he continually turns around to leave only to bump into a wall.

Dispensing with even the rudimentary tease that all might genuinely be well within the castle walls, Verbinski is free to ratchet up discomfort from the start as well as to jump right into bizarre, nightmarish forms of psychological treatment. In one of Lockhart’s first sessions, he is placed in a giant sensory deprivation tank, a huge iron silo that fills with water as the man starts to space out to the point that he sees a swarm of eels all around him. As Lockhart ventures deeper into restricted areas, he discovers ever-grislier views of the radical procedures conducted on the premises, gradually piecing together the castle’s dark history. As unsettling as the facility itself is, the characters that populate it are even more so: administrator Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs) hides sadism beneath a veneer of professionalism, responding to Lockhart’s mounting hysteria with terrible calm. Hannah (Mia Goth), the only other young person in the facility, is emotionally stunted, her childlike face often left blank as she navigates a realm she understands as home. Even the other patients are disturbing at times, older, tranquil people whose outward displays of idyll can turn into zombified emptiness with a trick of the light.

As dementedly playful as the film’s art direction is, much of the film’s unsettling power comes from Verbinski’s stately direction. Though he delves into psychological, hallucinogenic horrors, the director often approaches the action obliquely and from a great distance. The clearest reference point for this style is Roman Polanski, whose antiseptic frames and angular camera placements can be found all over this picture. The film even replicates Polanski’s ability to gradually slide into the supernatural and the sexually taboo, doing so with such dispassion that the deviancy becomes even more pronounced.

Besides the obvious Polanski touchstones, the film also delves into a hyperspecific genre of films dedicated to late-capitalist horror. The eerily primitive yet avant-garde facility, with all its focus on escape from technology and pollution, vaguely recalls the extremes to which Julianne Moore’s ailing petit-bourgeoisie went to purify herself in Todd Haynes’s Safe. Verbinski also taps into the strange, plastic power of David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, which similarly depicted the modern captains of post-industry ultimately devouring themselves after sealing themselves off so thoroughly from those in lesser strata. Peasants exist at the margins of A Cure for Wellness, but they are scarcely more than pawns, a last-ditch failsafe to prevent anyone from escaping the sanitarium in a tacit exchange for their own safety. By locking its drama into the upper reaches of international wealth, the film avoids any easy identification of a hero and villain, replacing such trivialities with a startlingly nihilistic vision in which the only wars that remain are those between old money and new.

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